Surviving the Holiday Season

It’s a bit of a cliche, but dinner over the holidays with the in-laws really does have the potential to affect your health. And not just anxiety or exasperation either. Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with your in-laws has the potential to change your gut microbiota composition. This is important because intestinal microbiota seem to have an important influence on out physical and mental health. Recent research showed that in participants visiting in-laws, there was a significant decrease in all Ruminococcus species, which is a change known to be associated with psychological stress and depression.

Does this mean that visiting your in-laws during the holiday season causes high levels of stress, which in turn leads to the decrease of ‘good’ bacteria in our gut? Maybe. But sometimes, we just don’t have a choice about that visit. So what can we do to help to make things go more smoothly?

Over the holidays, thousands of adults return to their childhood homes and spontaneously turn back into adolescents.

This kind of ‘holiday regression’ is an experience so universal that even therapists who specialise in this sort of thing tend to counsel ‘just dealing with it’. It’s often far too complicated to unpick in busy lives that come together for just perhaps one day over the holidays. So, when you go to your in-laws, its good to remember that all kinds of family dynamics may be at play, and you are most likely just a small part of this, if not a bemused spectator.

What can you do?

One of the more interesting suggestions borrows from the field of “embodied cognition”, which refers to the way our mental lives are lived through, and are influenced by, our bodies. (For example, clenching a fist has been found to enhance willpower; folding your arms aids perseverance.) One way to try to influence yourself and family interactions could be to try to adopt the physical pose of adulthood to counter the emotional reversion to childhood. Stand up straight, take a deep breath, and use your adult voice. It might work. But it also takes willing on the part of others too, so it might not.

Perhaps the key to dealing with it is to prepare like a professional athlete. Before a big competition, athletes will also work on “game day” strategies. Start by reflecting on what was successful at past holiday gatherings as well as what didn’t go so well. That way, you can incorporate the more successful elements and be well prepared for the ones that didn’t work. Sometimes, sports psychologists use ‘if-then’ strategies to help athletes for the big day.  The idea is that you think about possible scenarios and how you would respond to them.

You are then “action-ready” for potentially tough situations.

But if you wake up on Thanksgiving, Christmas (or any other morning really) morning feeling a bit nervous, try a tactic known as “arousal reappraisal”. Research has shown that reevaluating your nerves as positive rather than negative can lead to more positive outcomes like self-confidence. It’s all about your interpretation, so try to see things in a good light.

Another option is the pre-performance routine – just like in rugby, penalty kickers engage in a very specific process of physical preparation before every single kick. Some sport psychologists suggest that these routines may result in an optimal emotional state prior to performance.

If you don’t respond to the pre-performance routine then try positive “self-talk” – or use both. Self-talk is your inner dialogue with yourself, and is used by athletes to achieve a number of positive outcomes like reducing cognitive anxiety.

We are all constantly engaged in a never-ending stream of internal dialogue and it can be on maximum volume and speed when we’re facing a game situation. Whether it’s your uncle bringing up politics or a distant cousin sulking, your thought stream can become incredibly overcrowded. Simple cue words and phrases like “breathe” or “keep going” can give athletes a boost when they need it most. Start thinking about what cue words and phrases you can use and try them out to see what sticks.

Finally, successful athletes are usually a part of a larger team which offers support when needed. Even individual athletes have support staff, including coaches and physiotherapists, so think about who you can ask for a helping hand.

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